El Centro Mall; Pharr, Texas

El Centro Mall pylon in Pharr, TX
Pharr is a city in the Rio Grande Valley region of far southern Texas, a 70-mile string of cities between Mission in the west and Brownsville in the east, roughly paralleling US 83 along the Mexican border.  The region is one of the fastest growing in the nation, with a current population of over 1 million and a projected estimate of 1.3 million a decade from now.  This explosive growth is due, in part, to the presence of the border with Mexico.  An estimated 2 million people live on the Mexican side of the border, and when combined with the U.S. side the regional population is comparable with that of Texas’ larger cities, like San Antonio.  The region is also growing due to tourism from both Mexican nationals, snowbirds, and more recently eco-tourism.

El Centro Mall center court in Pharr, TXAs mentioned, a large percentage of the tourism in the Rio Valley of Texas comes from Mexican nationals, and much of that is for shopping.  Even though NAFTA has made American-made products widely available on the Mexican side of the border, many of the large malls on the American side as well as other retail outlets are packed with autos sporting Mexican license plates, from Distrito Federal (Mexico City) to the most often seen Nuevo Leon (Monterrey) and Tamaulipas (the Mexican side of the border here).

Generally, however, these tourists and locals are shopping at super-regional malls catering to this cross-border region – malls like Sunrise Mall in Brownsville and La Plaza Mall in McAllen.  As with other regions of the country, there are several centers which have fallen by the wayside.  

El Centro Mall in Pharr is one of these.  Located at the intersection of Central Ave and U.S. 83 in Pharr near the border with McAllen, El Centro was once the destination mall for the entire Valley and neighboring Mexico as well.  However, with competition emerging in the 1980s from the massive behemoth La Plaza Mall just down the road in McAllen, both tourist and local dollars alike fled El Centro.  So too did the anchors, with Sam’s Club and Montgomery Ward leaving and being replaced with Rehoboth Joy Dollar (former Sam’s), a Grand Central Station indoor entertainment facility, a Convergys call center, and a roster of mid-range stores, many of them local.  The only anchor to weather the economic changes at the mall has been Bealls, a store which seems to never update its facade despite the success of the mall it occupies. 

The decor of the 350,000 square-foot El Centro Mall harkens back to the 70s and 80s, with several stores sporting fronts which are a couple decades out of date.  In addition, the lighting inside the mall is relatively poor and the ceilings are rather low.  At least the Easter Bunny was there.  He had some pretty cool digs too in the way of a tattered, brown la-z-boy from days-gone-by, but we digress.

El Centro Mall Luby's in Pharr, TXToday, the future of El Centro Mall is in question.  As of December 2006, the city of Pharr met with Houston-based owners Levcor Inc. to discuss the mall’s future, and impress upon the new owners their desire for renovation.  The city would like the renovation to return the center to its retail roots, and kick the indoor entertainment facility as well as the call center out of the mix.  The call center and entertainment facility have no plans to leave, however, and both have leases through at least 2009.  In addition, Levcor recently purchased 10 acres to the north of the mall with plans for chain restaurants and other retail outlot activity. 

Clearly, despite the downfall of the mall itself, the area is still growing by leaps and bounds and continued economic viability of the area seems likely.  However, the mall itself will probably fall victim to redevelopment and be ultimately torn down. At any rate, the mall has been preserved here in visual form; pictures were taken in April 2007.  As always, feel free to complete the story of El Centro through your personal anecdotes and a more thorough history than what we’ve already found.

El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX

El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX 

El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX

El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX El Centro Mall in Pharr, TX


42 thoughts on “El Centro Mall; Pharr, Texas”

  1. Yay, another addition to my ever-growing list of malls in the US.

    I found that Sam’s Club opened in 1987, I’m betting it was something else (Woolco? a local store?) previously.

  2. Looks like what I imagine Turfland Mall in Lexington, KY looked like before the surface renovations that were done in a (failed) attempt to stanch the hemorrhaging of tenants.

  3. From the looks of it, this mall hasn’t been renovated in at last 25 years, if ever. The Bealls is especially tragic.

    I like the pole lamps inside; eveything else can go.

  4. A few things:

    1) I’ve never seen a Bealls that was so old. Maybe it’s because I’ve only ever seen them on visits to Florida, and since I was in places like Orlando or Naples, they were kept up. Also, how IS their name pronounced? I had assumed it was phoenetic but someone told me it’s more like “Bells.”

    2) In one of your pictures, there’s actually someone getting one of those massages in the mall kiosk massage thingys. I’m not sure I’ve actually ever seen someone buy one of those.

    3) The light fixtures are pretty great.

  5. 1) Glad you brought this up. The Texas Bealls are actually a completely different company than the Florida Bealls, The Texas Bealls are owned by the Stage Company, which also runs Peebles (nationwide) and Palais Royal (Houston area). That said, they do actually overlap in places (like Texas), and when they do the Bealls Florida chain uses the name Burke’s. To confuse matters further, both stores are similarly marketed with a very similar logo and both are pronounced “Bells.”

    2.) Yes, people throughout Texas actually did utilize the massage table things. It was kind of odd, but not a bad idea overall.

    3.) They are amazing.

  6. I don’t know this mall and about retail in Texas, but the exterior picture of Convergys and Joy Dollar: it looks like the building style of a former Woolco.

  7. Didn’t realize that the Florida and Texas Bealls chains were 2 seperate companies, I’ve vaguely heard of both chains, and thought they had some relation to one another. Guess not….

  8. I remember this mall. I lived in Harlingen until I was 18 a few years ago, then I moved to Austin for college.

    El Centro Mall is depressing – as is the surrounding area. My cousin and I only went there when we were bored and in the Pharr/McAllen area and felt like making fun of people. That and to kill time. The Valley is not very entertaining.

    Anyway, you should check out Sun Valley Mall in Harlingen (not Valle Vista). Mostly everything is empty…except for a dollar store and some welfare offices and an adult day care. It smells like urine in there, too. Creepy bathrooms. I think it’s all up for sale, so hopefully it gets redeveloped or torn down and something cool put in its place.

  9. hehe I like how they went overboard with the the globe lights,yeah it’s excessive,but looks so freaking cool!

    ah,how malls used to be…

  10. I grew up in the McAllen area, and I now go to college in Dallas, and El Centro Mall has been a joke as l can remember. I loved going in and looking at all the retro stuff though. It really has received no updates. My parents said when they were young it was a cool place, but now that there is La Plaza mall, one of Simons most successful malls at an average of $400/ sg ft in sales, El Centro is useless. Also, a huge lifestyle/mall center is being planned in Edinburg about 10 minutes north, and Palms Crossing in Mcallen under construction as well by Simon. Not to mention the new Chelsea Premium Outets in Mercedes to the East.

    I don’t think El Centro can survive the competition, even if renovated. The land it sits on is prime expressway frontage, I think it should be razed and redeveloped into either a power center or just sold to build offices/car dealership/anything. A huge Toyota/Scion dealership is under construction across the expressway from it, so maybe that are would be good for an automall.

    Nonetheless, El Centro has been a running joke among youth. If someone is wearing something ugly, me and my friends would usually say “Where did they get that, El Centro??” due to its “eclectic” local boutiques. If they redevelop, they need to consider a name change. The name is just too tarnished.

  11. Convergys and Joy Dollar:definately look like an old Woolco. I didn’t notice this the first time through.

  12. I doubt there was ever a Woolco there, we never had any in the Valley, at least since I can remember. I can ask my parents if there ever was. TGhe Convergys facade is actually newer, I think that was redone when it became a call center. Before that it was some type of store, that all I can remember is that it was a larger store and had candy in it, but I dont remember the name, I was young when it closed.

  13. I think the pole lights should be removed, cleaned, and put up elsewhere. As for the mall, I guess it can be completely demolished. But, leave the call center, Bealls and entertainment facility in standalone buildings. Then add a new big box store and an auto dealership.

  14. Muhammad Ali came to visit this mall in the mid 1980’s. I have some pictures of it somewhere. The mall was packed with people and police too.
    All the youth who make fun of this mall missed out. Period. The 70’s and the 80’s was a far more exciting than the terrible, uptight and boring 2000’s.

  15. What is the name of the store where you can see the railroad kids thing? “Trendy”? Does anyone have a list of stores?

  16. Can anyone show me the floorplan of this mall? Also, a list of stores, please? The ones I see are:

    The Boot Jack Express(?)
    Luby’s Cafeteria
    Bealls (anchor)
    Rehobath Joy Dollar (anchor?)
    The Shoe Box
    Twin’s Jewelry (kiosk?)
    Rainbow (not the shoe place)
    Gold Mine
    Chile Piquin Restaurant

    Certainly a creepy place.

  17. The Convergys and JoyDollar were a Sam’s Club prior to opening… but prior to that, the mall anchors were WOOLCO (like Woolworth, only much bigger) and Montgomery Ward with Bealls as the minor anchor. Back in the day, it was THE place to go. The grand daddy of Rio Grande Valley malls. Many national chain stores: Zales, Foot Locker, Thom McAnn, Kinneys, Curtis Mathis, Lerner, Cinema Twin, Nickelodeon, Radio Shack, Regis Hair Salon, Old Mexico Restaurant… I’m sure many others I can’t yet recall.

    The theater expanded into 8 screens from 2 and it went very well for awhile as the only multi screen theater in the upper valley. Until Movies 10 opened up in McAllen and thus made this theater a dollar store theater. (still gets packed to this day).

    Later, came the expansion that brought in Luby’s, GNC, Mr. Music and some T-shirt embroidery place. Sam’s Club outgrew its building (I worked there) and moved across Jackson road about a mile south. It sat empty for years (we would hold xmas parties there since Sam’s still owned the lease) prior to Joy Dollar moving into a 1/3 of the building space and Convergys taking the rest.

    Much much later came a night club (Tequila Nights) that didn’t make it, a chinese buffet (still open) and Graham Central Station. The City of Pharr is doing their best to kick out Graham Central Station by denying their alcohol license recently… probably in their bid to kick them out for the new owners who say that they will be demolishing the entire mall for a power center. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

  18. Rereading the entry on this mall just now, it’s amazing that it didn’t dawn on me the first time how outdated this mall was. But I can also see why this mall became (in essence) a dead mall museum, and why the city of Pharr just wants to redevelop this into something more lucrative for the city than a mall in a dead state.

    Still, really enjoyed the pics, especially if the only change this mall ever got in its 3 decades(?) of operation was one expansion, and no thorough renovations ever. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the mall is renamed into something else, and the demolition of this mall begins.

  19. el centro mall can survive add some stores we dont have down inthe valley add a nordstorms or something of that magnitude or speciality shops and it wiil rise from the dead it has so much potential it just need the right retail stores.

  20. that place is super seedy. it’s one of those gang banger type of malls. i hate to even leave my car out there when i need to go to the radio shack.

  21. I’m a regular visitors of this mall since 1999. Its a very old mall, but its clean and safe. There is a guy in charge of security that runs that place really well. He’s not nice buthe keeps the mall safe for shoppers. Since I first came I observed a big reduction in gangs activity and presence. After speaking with merchants, they all agreed that that was achieved by this security supervisor. Sorry I don’t remember his name.

  22. I remeber when there was a wolco and mongomery wards there. I grew up going to that mall. my family and i were frequent visitors in the early 80s. it’s funny, if you go back they still have the same red and black lines on the sides and the rocky edges as well. it’s not bad but it’s a sad look at what it used to be. i agree that security is a lot better (having said that i hope my car doesn’t go missing) but the gangs have really lowered the quality around there. if they got a new interiror and worked it up a bit more (fix the lot) they might have something.

    Jackson (where the mall is located) is booming. The Las Tiendas area is expanding and its kind of hard not to notice change is headed that way.

  23. i got stabbed in the butt there. beware ot the bathrooms.

  24. Jonas:
    I am not sure of all the stores; here are a few:

    The Gold Mine
    The Music Center
    The Boot Jack

    I visit this mall on a regular basis to attend lessons at The Music Center (great musician teachers and a cool, talkative owner), so I could check it out next time I’m in there.

  25. Sorry,
    That last comment was supposed to be directed to “Jonah.”

    I forgot the Movie Theater (which is a dollar movie…Cinemark, I think).
    The Grand China Buffet (or something like that)
    Graham Central Station
    A nail salon (I don’t know the name of)
    Various kiosks (candy, music, food, etc)
    A couple of other inexpensive clothing stores
    A dress store (for mainly formal dresses…a mom/pop-owned type place)
    A novelty gift store (also mom/pop-owned)

  26. Where are the bathrooms in that place? i’ve never seen them. BTW i tired out the massage place there. the out of town lady right infront of the bells. very nice lady and it wasn’t bad. so there’s one postive point.

    Here’s a question for AnnCee, have you noticed that there are a ton of closed stores but no signs displaying rental information? are they cooking up something -kicking out the crappy merchants like what harlingen did- or they just don’t talk about it.

    David in McAllen.

  27. The mall’s new owner’s have big plans for an outdoor power center. Go to levcor.com I can’t wait!

  28. I’m from Monterrey and i have some family in Pharr, TX, and the first time that i visited them, i went to this mall and really i liked it, well it’s too old, but all is cheaper than any store in Plaza Mall, and they have the same clothes and tennis shoes than in another stores of plaza mall. The Chinesse restaurant outside is pretty delicious jaja, i love it… one thing that is really disgusting are the bathrooms they are really bad they are dirty and they smell so bad, but always that i visit Pharr, i like to visit this mall, of course Plaza Mall is better and i prefer it, but el Centro Mall is cheaper, and well i like it..they just need to change the mall aspect because it look so old…

  29. Good to hear that they are remodeling this mall. It is old. about 30-40 percent of the spaces are vacant. The mall is primarily ran by mom and pops stores. It is not like your typical corporate ran mall. Its been a while that I drive by, but I live in the area so I often pass by. I remember it use to be a Montgomery Wards and there use to be a Sam’s Club until they built there own building not to far away. I did notice they are building a Pappadeaux ajacent to the mall.

  30. I remember when the mall opened in the early 70s… It was THE place to go to, but,, alsa, El Centro in Mcallen destroyed it.

  31. @Fairfax County Master of Metal,

    You wouldn’t happen to have a picture of Muhammad Ali’s visit to el Centro Mall when he picked up a small child into the air while I believe he was leaving? I was that child he picked up and would love to find a picture of that moment.

  32. I remember going to this mall with my mother between 1980-1985. I’m 35 now and live n San Diego, California. I can attest to the fact that NOTHING has changed except that this mall was anchored by a Dillard’s. The square seats struggling to be retro are just as I remember them. I recall this mall being extremely boring for a kid. My only enjoyment was that it used to be the only place to get a Hot Dog On A Stick with a Lemonade.

  33. as a kid back in the late 70’s, early 80’s my family and i would go to this mall a lot. i remember the first thing i saw stepping out of montgomery ward’s was medico, the drug store. i haven’t gone in a long time, still pass by it, but never go in. i wonder if medico is still there. when the michael jackson thriller video got released on video, they had this big screen projection tv outside of the curtis mathis store. people were sitting out in front of it just mesmerized.

    i do remember shopping in the woolco’s. after it closed the doors that led into the mall were closed and covered in brown paper. i also used to go with my dad to the theater. back then there were only two screen and the entrance to it was inside the mall right across from where the nickelodeon arcade is now. i think the doors to the theater that are inside are now used as an exit for the current theater.

    my fondness memeries were going there during christmas. oh man that mall was amazing during christmas. they had these animatronic characters through out the mall. one right outside the ward’s store. they were placed all over the store. they features houses covered in cotton snow and other things like that. little plastic, maybe wooden characters would move around. mostly their arms, legs, heads and mechanical animals would move around as well. is there anyone else who visited the mall back then that remembers these christmas decorations?

  34. @Sly,

    el centro never had a dillards.

    nor did it ever have a hot dog on a stick place.

    you must be thinking of la plaza mall. la plaza has changed completely. the mall is bigger and very modern. dillards has moved to another location and is bigger than where it was. the corn dog with lemonade got closed down, it used to be near a mac’s toy store. the cord dog place was later re-opened at the food court.

  35. I remember those Christmas decorations. It was a veritable synthetic winter wonderland. Being in the deep south we rarely had freezing weather and even when we did, we never had snow. For a little kid from the Valley, it was a magical place that made the whole trip to the mall worth while. I remember the crude animatronic animals and Santa sitting on his throne waiting for the next child in line to tell him their selection of toys for x-mas. The frosted glass domes over the pole lamps only made the scene even more realistic to young eyes.

    I remember going to the El Centro Mall many times over the decades. My mother used to drag me to Bealls to shop for all my clothes and my older brother would take me to the Nickelodeon to play video games. Montgomery Ward had all the best toys and I remember going there to pick out all the Star Wars stuff I wanted after coming out from the theater. I still vaguely remember seeing SW there even though I was only like 3 years old. Darth Vader scared the crap out of me.

    When I was older I used hang out at the Gold Mine with my buddies. It was the notorious hangout of the “bad” kids who would play pool in the back room under the black light surrounded by black light posters. We used to buy our rock/metal memorabilia there. This was when it was still cool and the owner did not prominently display his toy collection around the shop.

    I’ll be sad to see the old girl go. It would be good to renovate, add on or otherwise bring new shops to the mall to bring the place back to life. Before all the economic expansion of the surrounding area, no one gave a damn about the mall. Can’t we somehow keep it alive so the next generation will have bittersweet memories to look back on also?

  36. oh man, the gold mine….i loved that store. i was somewhat scared of going to the back cuz of the guys playing pool under the black light. but i always bought those weird gags/jokes they had there in the glass cases. all the metal shirts and stuff…i remember all that.

    i too got dragged into the bealls by my mom, aunt and grand mother. i hated that store. mainly cuz i knew we were going to be there forever and ever. i just wanted to go to the gold mine. but they wouldn’t let me go alone.

    every time we visited we ate at the old mexico. i loved the original design of the place. i remember that lone pay phone at the very back, underneath the arch. the restrooms were next to it. for some reason that area creeped me out. i always enjoyed eating on the side that was behind the serving area.

    i know i saw many movies there with my dad, but the only one i can remember seeing there is the first alien movie.

    and yes the wards store was one of the best places to find star wars toys. oh man i had a blast there. they also had that little area right as you entered where the aquariums were. i loved going in there to see the many fish. the only other stores i can remember seeing so many star wars toys were at la plaza mall in the mac’s toy store(now the victoria’s secret store) and the woolworth’s (it was pretty much across from where mac’s toy store was and the corn dog place). i was sad the day woolworth’s closed there.

  37. @Bobby, Yes that was a Woolco originally. Montgomery Ward was the other anchor. Plitt/ABC theater was a dual screen then went to 8 screens with all shows $1 and it was all downhill from there. McDonald’s was on the outlot from the beginning and moved down the frontage road.

  38. @Matt R, There was definitely a Woolco there in that spot.

  39. @Matt R, Yes, back in the 70’s there was a Woolco there. Had the best toy section (i was around 4)! Also, Montgomery Wards was at the other end. Was shopping there up till around 18 years ago. Went in last week and the Gold Mine is still there along with a store called Famous Brands. The clother are cheap and I am heading out there today after work!! 🙂

  40. @Roy, I remember the animatronic christmas displays! My mom would take me and my brother to the mall around the Christmas time specifically so that we could see them, because we loved them! they were magical to us and thinking about them still sparks a bit of that feeling.

    I was born in 78, so this was the very early 80s. My family moved out of the Valley in ’89. I have never seen another mall that had displays anything like them. That is how I found this page, but doing a search for it.. I randomly thought about it (I can be a bit nostalgic).

    Did this mall have a service merchandise? I *think* that was the store I loved that had such a great toy selection. can’t remember for sure. I also remember a store that had a bunch of posters and other stuff like that… a room in the back that had black light in it and more posters. I think there may have been beads as the “door” to the back part. Hazy 30 year old memories from being 5 years old.

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